Plugging the holes in a spotty education.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Russian To Judgment

For years, I’ve compared anything convoluted – or simply long – to a Russian novel. Meetings that run over an hour, stories about disastrous holiday trips, that was my default summation: “It was like a Russian novel.” Alluding to your own erudition while implying there are great psychological depths to what has just transpired; trust me, there is no more lethal arrow in the pseudo-intellectual quiver.

A few years ago I made the Shame-Faced Admission™ that I’d never actually read a Russian novel, and finally picked one up so I’d know what I was talking about. It took me months to finish Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and not just because it’s as thick as, well, a Russian novel. I could only muddle through a few pages per day, baffled and at times put off by its neurotic intensity.

But all became clear by the transcendent ending, and I’m glad I stuck with it. There’s the added bonus of being able to see homages to it elsewhere. Realizing that Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket was essentially an unofficial adaptation of C&P almost compensated for the fact that I didn’t like the movie. (Bresson loved working with untrained actors. I believe, in movies and in life, you should always go with professionals.)

It was another film that got me interested in reading Notes From Underground. I’d heard that Paul Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver was greatly influenced by Dostoevsky and this work in particular. NFU is about a quarter of the length of C&P, so onto the queue it went.

The book is oddly structured. An unnamed narrator – a 40-year-old civil servant in St. Petersburg – lays out his beliefs on how the human animal functions, then recounts three anecdotes from his own miserable life illustrating his points. Somehow it works.

For a 140-year-old story, it remains shocking and vital, in part because it’s almost too honest about how people think. Its portrait of mankind is surprisingly contemporary. Run down this checklist of behavior and see if it reminds you of anyone you know:

- Relying on fantasy instead of actual accomplishment (“I invented adventures for myself and made up a life, so as at least to live in some way”)

- Brooding over slights, perceived and actual

- Concocting elaborate plans to avenge these slights that never come off as intended

- Being a jerk just ‘cause (“to take offense simply on purpose, for nothing”)

- Embracing your own misery because it justifies your self-absorption (“I will ask ... an idle question: which is better – cheap happiness or exalted suffering?”)

- Whipsawing between feelings of inferiority and superiority when it comes to co-workers and friends

- Using the pointlessness of life to excuse your own inertia (“I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything”)

- Considering your boorishness as doing the rest of the world a favor (“Resentment – why, it is a purification; it is a most stinging and painful consciousness”)

That’s right. What we have here is not merely an existentialist classic, but the George Costanza playbook.

Wait. You didn’t think I was talking about myself, did you? It’s not like Mr. Underground feigns expertise in areas he knows nothing about and passes off stories he’s heard as first-hand experience and oh, forget it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the exact same thing about George Costanza vs. Notes from Underground
-Art Vandalay

12:33 PM


Post a Comment

<< Home